“Champagne?” said Jeff Arundel to visitors at the Aster Café on Oct. 10, as the elegant nightclub nestled on the banks of the Mississippi River reopened its doors five weeks after a burst water main flooded the premises.
Arundel, who owns the four-year-old bar/restaurant, was in typical good-cheer form, warmly greeting friends and customers with a pat on the back and free flutes of bubbly, all the while rinsing glasses, busing tables, lighting candles and making sure the kitchen was up for the dinner rush escalating on the patio outside.
Which is a much different scenario than the one of chairs and tables bobbing in 3 feet of water, as was the case in the wee hours of Sept. 4. What did it take to get the Aster up and running again?
“Courage,” said Arundel, looking tan and fit from a Minnesota summer and his regular yoga regimen. “Raw courage.”
Which is what Arundel seems to be equipped with, in spades. The 55-year-old Minneapolis music mainstay and spiritual seeker climbed the Matterhorn in July, but the Aster disaster required all the personal balance he could muster, not to mention a certain steely verve gleaned from putting himself in extreme situations.
“Climbing a mountain or recording or pushing yourself to the edge, I find that there’s real value in that,” he said. “Yoga’s a great example of every time you do it, you go deeper with it. That’s what I want — a deeper experience of life. A lot of people get to our point and stop [making music]. I feel lucky that I still get to walk onto the field, so to speak. … If I keep doing that, I get to a deeper space, a less filtered space.”
These days Arundel seems more comfortable in his own skin than ever before, thanks in no small part to a shedding of some of youth’s ego traps and ambition. The former president and CEO of Compass Inc., he launched the Lifescapes label and released several new-age soundscape CDs that, because of an exclusive distribution deal with Target, made Compass and Arundel millions of dollars, and exposed local musicians like Jeff Victor, Rob Arthur and Wayne Jones to a massive audience.
“It was a super success businesswise, but what I’m proudest of is that it gave all of these Minnesota composers a chance to compose,” Arundel said the day after the Aster’s re-opening, sitting in his downtown Minneapolis condo, whose woodsy decor has been dubbed “Hogwarts” by some. (He has three children from his first marriage; he was married to singer/radio personality Keri Noble for seven years and is now engaged to Aster co-owner Amy Spartz.)
Still, there was backlash from critics in Minneapolis and beyond about a rich guy slumming as a songwriter with hired guns, but the fact of the matter is that Arundel, who first made his mark on the local scene with his 1995 tribute to a Twins legend, “Harmon Killebrew,” is as successful a DIY artist as any you can name, and Friday night he celebrates the release of his seventh CD, “September,” at the club he’s resurrected.
“That’s a dream-come-true I never had,” said Arundel, who then bullet-pointed his proudest career achievements:
“Being on two Cities 97 samplers; those records did really well, with radio play all over the country. Opening for Shawn Colvin. A worldwide tour with Keri. I got to play ‘Harmon Killebrew’ at Harmon Killebrew’s funeral at Target Field, which for a guy like me, the most nostalgic man in America, you can just stop there.
“And now, to be able to sit back and watch all this happen — we’re doing shows now in the [Aster’s] River Room, with theater seating — it’s been a great ride. Through all the corners of the music side, you know? Whether it was losing the money as a promoter [Compass backed the ill-fated Mill City Music Festival in 1996 and ’97], or making the money by running the label, or being a sideman.”
And hardly a thing of the past. “September” was co-produced by longtime collaborator Rob Arthur, but it’s Arundel’s vulnerability, soft heart and songwriting chops that shine through. The truth is, Arundel may just now be coming into his own as a recording artist.
“Creativity begets creativity. Everybody who writes songs hits a [cold] spot, but if you open up that spigot, one comes out after another, and another,” he said. “What I’ve learned is to let go. I’ve worked to find my own voice. I did get referred to as ‘the James Taylor of the ’90s’ by Billboard, and at first I liked it but then I realized James Taylor is still with us and I’d rather be Bill Withers, that’s really more me.
“I had to keep peeling away the layers to get to my own voice, and I’m glad for that process. It’s hard to be authentic when you’re insecure; I just kept with it and kept with it. You can think things that happen are a catastrophe, but the reality is that I got something out of it. I got continued awareness about myself, I got to evolve through all of it, and I’m not done.”
Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis writer and musician who has occasionally performed at the Aster.